On a gray and rainy day, they poured onto the streets of Polish cities by the thousands. The women wore black, waved black flags and raised black umbrellas overhead — gathering on “Black Monday” to protest a proposed ban on abortion.
In Poland, abortion is already illegal except in cases of rape, incest, danger to the mother’s life or irreparable damage to a fetus. The legislature is now proposing an absolute ban, carrying jail time of up to five years for both women and their doctors no matter the circumstances of the abortion, The Associated Press reports.
In response to the proposal, Polish women and some men went on strike Monday, boycotting work and school in Warsaw, Gdansk, Wroclaw and across the country, according to the AP.
Meanwhile there were counterprotests and special Catholic Masses held to support the proposal, the news service writes, and the Polish foreign minister said the protests were “creating artificial problems.”
Monday’s action “caused widespread disruption to businesses, traffic and to government offices,” Reuters reports. In addition to the strike and marches, there were blood-donation drives and book readings, and some teachers taught classes while wearing all black, the wire service says.
Foreign Minister Witold Waszczykowski told a radio station that the right to life is an “important moral challenge,” and dismissed protesters by saying “let them have fun,” Reuters says.
It’s difficult to gauge exactly how many people participated in the strike, but both wire services report that it numbered in the thousands. The AP says that in major cities, participation was obvious, with shops closed and police estimating that some 17,000 people were gathered in downtown Warsaw.
The AP spoke to several of those protesters:
“Coffee shops were filled with groups of women dressed head to toe ahead of the main rally.
“One was 34-year-old banker Agnieszka Krysztopolska, who sat in a Starbuck’s shop with several friends who were all boycotting work.
” ‘I have two children and it’s not like I am some kind of hardline feminist but I do not agree with somebody depriving me of the right to my own health or that of my children. I think this bill is just dangerous,’ she said.
“Near her, 28-year-old Magdalena Gwozdz chatted with her 17-year-old sister, who was boycotting school.
“This should be a woman’s choice and abortion should be available in case of rape or a damaged fetus,” Gwozdz said. “This is Europe and we are in the European Union.”
Poland, which is largely Catholic, already has some of the most restrictive abortion limits in Europe.
A professor of gender studies at Warsaw University told the National Catholic Reporter earlier this summer that in addition to criminalizing all abortions, the proposed change in the law could also cause women to be imprisoned for a miscarriage if they couldn’t prove it was not induced.
Miscarriages could lead to a prison term of up to three years, Elzbieta Korolczuk told the publication.
Korolczuk also told the NCR the law would make doctors afraid to intervene in ectopic pregnancies — when a fertilized egg implants outside the uterus, a situation that is dangerous for the mother and almost always fatal for the fetus.
Reuters reports that some critics have said the law would even discourage doctors from doing prenatal tests, if they carried the risk of miscarriage.
For months, activists in Poland have expressed concerns about the prospect of a total abortion ban.
The conservative Law and Justice Party, a nationalist, pro-Catholic, Euroskeptic and anti-immigrant party, won control of Poland’s parliament last year. The party also controls the presidency, and soon moved to curtail the power of Poland’s constitutional court. Canada’s CBC writes that the party then took control of public broadcasting in Poland.
As NPR wrote in December, after the constraints on the judicial branch were imposed, some women’s rights groups in Poland worried that the party would use its consolidated power to criminalize abortion and restrict sex education.
Now the abortion ban is officially on the table.
The proposal was inspired by a petition signed by 450,000 people, the AP writes; more than 38 million people live in Poland.
Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło, of the Law and Justice party, has said she supports the total ban on abortion, The Guardian reported earlier this year.
The Catholic Church also supports the proposed law, the CBC notes, but polls of the Polish public find some 74 percent of respondents do not want the current abortion laws changed.
The draft law was “adopted in principle by a large majority in parliament” in late September, the CBC writes, and is now in committee.
On Wednesday, the AP reports, the European Union’s Parliament will be debating the “situation of women in Poland,” given the proposed abortion ban.